Twenty-one months after she left the White House, Michelle Obama is returning to public life feeling purposeful and invigorated. She launched, within weeks, high-profile social initiatives on voting and girls’ education while preparing for a mega-book tour unlike any book tour, well, ever.
Fans already have purchased tens of thousands of tickets to hear Obama share stories from her memoir, “Becoming,” in basketball arenas in 10 cities. Combined with the celebrity-laden rollouts of her latest projects, the former first lady is demonstrating a mix of uncommon star-power and bankability while advancing themes that have long mattered to her.
Obama, 54, feels liberated after a decade in an unrelenting political spotlight where she was tethered to her husband’s career and a White House role marked by both opportunities and constraints alike, say those who know her well. They say she is reveling in the chance to develop meaningful pursuits entirely her own.
“The possibilities are infinite,” said longtime friend and former White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, who describes Obama as fired-up and happy. “Now she’s able to lead her best life and to create and own it in her own image.”
Thursday on a New York television stage, Obama unveiled a project intended to help educate tens of millions of adolescent girls denied the chance to finish high school. The Global Girls Alliance, developed quietly over the past year, scored an hour of coverage on NBC’s “Today Show,” ending with a concert by Jennifer Hudson, Meghan Trainor and Kelly Clarkson.
The education project is the second of three very public moves by Obama this fall after a stretch when she took a breather — including time with friends and some glam vacations — as she turned to writing her book. Last month, the former first lady launched an initiative to get more people to register and vote, addressing thousands of cheering fans at rallies in Las Vegas and Miami.
“Becoming” will be released on Nov. 13 with a conversation in front of more than 20,000 people at Chicago’s United Center. The book tour is being managed by Live Nation, which more typically stages events for the likes of Rihanna, U2 and Pink. She has sold tens of thousands of tickets from Los Angeles and Dallas to Detroit, Boston and Washington.
Demand was so intense she added second appearances in Washington and New York. In Dallas, just days after tickets went on sale for a Dec. 17 appearance, all but the most expensive seats were gone. A pair of the cheapest remaining seats at the 20,000-seat American Airlines arena cost $3,909, before tax. At each event, Live Nation pledges 10 percent of the tickets will be given away free.
The Chicago launch represents a homecoming for Obama, who built a 20-year career largely independent of her husband. She quit her job as a hospital executive in service to his ambitions and the responsibilities of first lady. Although she compiled a series of accomplishments, along with approval ratings in the high 60s, she made no secret of her desire to escape.
Obama described the book in a viral video — 1.7 million views and counting — as “honest” and “totally and utterly me.” She crafted it from the stories of her life, asking friends to help her remember anecdotes and staff to help her write. She devoted hundreds of hours to the manuscript in her Washington office, her aides said, editing on paper, rather than on a computer.
Other former first ladies have written memoirs, most recently Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton, but none have launched them with such stratospheric expectations. David Drake, executive vice president of Crown Publishing Group, said his team felt reassured in June when Obama drew frequent applause and a standing ovation from 9,000 librarians in New Orleans.
At that session, organized by Penguin Random House to introduce the book, Obama talked about the influence of her parents, her sometime frustration in Chicago that her career took a back seat to her husband’s and the tightrope of the couple being the first African American president and first lady.
“We did not have the luxury to make mistakes,” she said then, adding their years in Washington were hardly error-free. Explaining that she hopes readers will see themselves in her doubts, missteps and triumphs, she added that the book depicts “the ordinariness of an extraordinary story.”
Jarrett said this may be the first time in Obama’s life when she can wake up each day and do what she wants to do. Money is certainly not a worry, given the Obamas’ reported $65-million joint book contract, a Netflix deal and a raft of six-figure speaking engagements.
They paid $8.1 million for their house in Washington’s Kalorama neighborhood, and travel is on the agenda. Obama and her daughter Sasha, a high school senior, popped up in Paris this summer at a concert by her friend Beyoncé.
“She’s earned this phase in her life where she can make more of her own decisions,” said Melissa Winter, who is Michelle Obama’s chief of staff. “There were always duties in the White House that she was required to perform as first lady. She doesn’t have to do that stuff anymore.”
In the television interview this week, Obama made clear she’s still engaged in the conversations shaping American culture and shared her thoughts on the #MeToo movement.
“I am surprised at how much has changed, but how much has not changed. And I think that’s where the fire is coming from. Enough is enough. The world is a sadly dangerous place for women and girls,” she said. “We see that again and again. I think young women are tired of it. They’re tired of being undervalued, they’re tired of being disregarded, they’re tired of their voices not being invested in and heard.”
Obama largely stepped out of the public eye after January 2017. She vacationed, she read novels, she spent time with friends. But, ever disciplined, she also spent time laying out a plan for her post-FLOTUS life. She thought about what issues mattered to her and would move the needle, as she often says.
“You have this very large platform and attention, but there’s no road map to what’s the best use of it. I think that is far more daunting than people realize,” said former East Wing chief of staff Tina Tchen. “Whatever she does has to be authentic to her. You can’t promote something that you don’t believe in.”
The preparations mirrored Obama’s approach in the White House, where her team often invested a year in research and networking before rolling out a major initiative. Tchen described Obama’s view this way: “You can’t just show up and say, ‘I’m Michelle Obama.’ You have to seriously bring something to the table of value.”
Obama is playing a leading role in the development of the Obama Presidential Center, due to open in Chicago in 2021, walking distance from her childhood neighborhood of South Shore. In addition to housing a museum and a public library, the complex will include a garden that echoes the vegetable garden she installed on the south lawn of the White House.
The former first lady has weighed in on the foundation’s values and ambitions as well as “minute details,” including where the coat-check room and elevators will be located in the museum, said David Simas, CEO of the Chicago-based Obama Foundation.
She is not “a wing-it person,” said Eric Waldo, who directs Reach Higher, a project exported from the White House that aims to guide disadvantaged young people to higher education and training. Obama is board chair of Reach Higher and has continued to don a Princeton T-shirt and appear at college signing day events, most recently on May 2 in Philadelphia with 7,000 high school students.
Before putting herself forward as a spokesperson for the When We All Vote effort, Obama wanted to know whether she would be seen as a good messenger. The Benenson Strategy Group conducted focus groups with unregistered voters younger than 36 in Detroit and Las Vegas and found that participants "trusted her motivations" and "assumed positive intentions," reported Benenson's Amy Levin, who briefed Obama on the results.
The voting crusade and the girls education initiative will be an early test of Obama’s ability to mobilize audiences without her White House staff and megaphone. In search of multipliers, she is using corporate partnerships and targeted marketing, as she did as first lady. When she contacted singer Janelle Monáe recently and asked her to become a co-chair of the voting initiative, Monáe readily accepted, joining Lin-Manuel Miranda, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Chris Paul and Tom Hanks.
“When she’s passionate about something, she’ll follow up with it. It’s not an act, it’s not a show. She talks about it behind closed doors,” Monae, 32, said in a telephone interview before hosting a voting rally at Spelman College.
The Global Girls Alliance grew from a 2013 conversation in the White House with Pakistani human rights advocate Malala Yousafzai, then a teenager, whose work focuses on girls who are denied education for reasons ranging from war and economic pressure to cultural norms and outright prejudice.
Obama added international girls education to her portfolio in 2015 in a project called Let Girls Learn, which remained with the White House when the Obamas departed. To measure the current need, Obama Foundation staff drew on previous research done by the Brookings Institution and asked experts and organizers in the field whether there continued to be a valuable role for Obama to play.
“The overwhelming consensus was, absolutely, there’s a strong need to have someone like her, with her platform, championing this issue to spread the word,” said Tiffany Drake, director of the alliance, which is housed at the foundation.
In May, out of public view, the foundation started a Facebook page to connect people around the world working on girls’ education. It quickly grew to 1,300 members, and now more, who are sharing ideas and cheering one another on. The foundation will be providing webinars, tool kits and other content.
A central component is a feature developed with GoFundMe, the crowdsourcing company, to deliver money to organizations vetted by the foundation. Six projects at a time will be highlighted, seeking amounts from $5,000 to $50,000. When one project’s goal is reached, a new organization will take its place on GoFundMe.
“The stats show that when you educate a girl, you educate a family a community, a country,” Obama said on NBC’s “Today Show,” referring to an estimated 98 million adolescent girls not in school. “If we care about climate change, if we care about poverty, if we care about maternal-child health, then we have to care about education.”
Not everyone has been rapturous about Obama’s return, a reminder of the criticism she drew in the White House. When Obama praised her husband’s record in Las Vegas on Sept. 23, Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren challenged her claims, ending with the comment, “Sit down, Michelle.”
Obama has never delighted in electoral politics, although she campaigned hard during her husband's two presidential campaigns and lent her voice to a select group of other candidates. Her most pointed political comments came in 2016, when she criticized Donald Trump, then the Republican nominee, as "erratic and threatening," a candidate who "traffics in prejudice, fears and lies."
Since then, she has spoken more elliptically in public events, and her staff said as recently as this week she has made no decision about whether to campaign or raise money for Democratic candidates in the final weeks of the 2018 campaign. In Miami last month, she made a not-so-veiled comment about the Republican treatment of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused then-Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers.
Speaking at a When We All Vote rally, Obama cited decisions that elected politicians make, including “how victims of sexual assault are treated.” The remark prompted loud cheers.
“Wouldn’t you want to be sure,” she continued, “that those elected officials were thinking about all of us, not just some small percentage of us, when they’re making those decisions? Well here’s the truth: Voting is the only way to ensure that your concerns matter. Period.”
Obama expects the effort, which is officially nonpartisan, to extend well beyond November. She said, “We’ve got to make voting trendy. We’ve got to hashtag it. We’ve got to sing about it.”
The effort is facing skepticism in Republican quarters. “This is the furthest you can possibly get from being nonpartisan,” said Keith Schipper, spokesman for Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), fighting to retain his seat against a Democratic challenger.
Obama’s Las Vegas rally turned out Democrats such as Karen Houston, who flew in from California. The 66-year-old executive assistant said she had never voted in a primary or a midterm election until this year, but will now.
“I’m just in awe of that woman. I love her intelligence, her class, her grace. She was expected to do less, but she did more. She was a role model,” Houston said. She thinks Obama should not enter politics, “because I know the tweets will fly.”
A few rows away, Kate Frye, a 80-year-old seamstress, had a different view.
“I want her to run in 2020,” Frye said.
Obama has made crystal clear, in public and in private, she has no interest in running for office. She said in the NBC interview that she has never wanted to be a politician. “As a woman you understand where your voice works best. . . . I want to serve, I want to do work. I want to be out there but there are so many ways to make an impact. Politics is just not my thing. It’s as simple as that.”
Yet the loudest cheers of the Las Vegas night came after someone shouted, “Run for president!” She turned back to her voting theme and said, “You know, we need you guys.”
Undeterred, the crowd erupted into a chant, “We need YOU! We need YOU!”